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I'm not sure if this is on-topic here. If I get reasonable amount of comments telling that it's off-topic, I'll delete my post.

I wrote a code that generates random human-readable strings. Every other letter is vowel, and in some random places there are two consecutive vowels or two consecutive consonants; pretty simple algorithm.

I showed it to a friend and he told me that most of the resulting strings sound like they're Chinese or Japanese words.

My question is that what makes languages like Korean, Chinese, or Japanese sound different than European languages like English? What do they have in common that makes them different? Is there any special combination of letters?

Edit: I myself speak western Persian, an Asian language. But when I hear Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, I'm like "this is an East-Asian language" . Those languages are different from each other and sound different, but many people around me have the same feeling as me when hearing those languages. The question is why it's like that?

Edit 2: Maybe "Why would someone categorize a word as East-Asian?" is better title, which is a vague and a wide topic. I accepted @Pace's answer because it gave me a better understanding and helped me more. But I think the other answer is a better answer to the question in the title.

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    Different from what? (I envisage your question will not be liked here for a number of reasons). – tum_ May 1 at 19:42
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    Remember that Asia is large. There are also many Indo-Aryan, Semitic,... languages in Asia. – Vladimir F May 1 at 19:58
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    ... and Turkic. Remember also that Japanese, Chinese (which is a western term for a whole bunch of languages) and Korean sound very different compared to each other. – tum_ May 1 at 20:52
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    "Languages like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc." is a curious grouping, seeing as none of those three languages derive from the same language (or, most likely, from each other). – jogloran May 3 at 4:12
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    Can you please clarify, how European languages are supposed to sound? I mean, what common pronounciation features are there, say, between French, Russian and German? – Anixx May 3 at 5:43
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If you generate a bunch of random strings like that it will not match any patterns that your friend's brains recognize and those brains are going to categorize them into the "most unknown" bucket. If your friends are English speakers then there is a good bet that bucket is "Asian".

So it may not be at all that the words are similar to any individual Asian language. It may simply be that the brain is saying "None of these sounds and patterns are familiar, must be Asian, I don't know much about that".


The above statement (and the question as originally asked) require a pretty advanced understanding of a number of questions (e.g. How do people divide the world into language groups? What languages do people think of when asked with a classification task from a friend?), many of which I don't think are well studied or fully understood. My answer was an educated guess and I am doing research post-hoc per request. So obviously there is some confirmation bias at play. Take this with whatever grain of salt you want.

There are a number of techniques for identifying linguistic or phonetic similarity. The most applicable paper I could find is "A Perceptual Phonetic Similarity Space for Languages: Evidence from Five Native Language Listener Groups." They asked English listeners to “rank the languages according to their distance from English.” The three most similar were Dutch, Catalan, and Galician while the three most distant were Sindhi, Arabic, and Cantonese.

Of course, that leaves the question of "what language groups will an English speaker's brain be even considering?" Are Sindhi, Arabic, and Cantonese all "Asian languages"? I couldn't really even come up with any evidence of that in any direction.

My answer also requires an assumption that random gibberish will translate to "most unknown" language. That's by no means conclusive. For example, you can programmatically generate convincing psuedowords in a variety of languages (e.g. see http://crr.ugent.be/programs-data/wuggy). So what happens when the pseudowords are generated in the random way described? Does the brain still try and categorize them? Does it just hit a default case and throw them into the "most unknown" bucket as I theorized? I doubt there will be any research on that.


So, in conclusion, don't take my answer as any statement of fact. It's a vague question that's asking more about a cognitive phenomenon than a linguistic one.

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    -1. Sorry, this answer isn't rooted in fact in any way. Do you have evidence that 'there is a good bet that bucket is "Asian"', rather than any other continent's languages? – jogloran May 3 at 4:08
  • That's fair. The specific point you are asking about is probably the most researched of the assumptions required by my answer so I have added a bit of detail about that. However, I doubt anyone could provide a concrete 100% evidence based answer to the question that was asked (the one asked in the body of the text, not the one in the title). – Pace May 3 at 10:03
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Asian languages don't "sound alike" and don't "sound different" from European languages, because languages of Asia include Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Indian languages, and Chukchi (among others). Most people don't know what Chukchi sounds like, nor do they know about Khakas, Ket, Mongolian, Malay etc. However, actual exposure to Japanese, Chinese and Korean and street conversation is common enough via TV and movies (including Asian-accented English) that many people have an experiential basis for correlating certain kind of language sound with East Asia.

In the case of CJK, similarities in prosody probably defines what causes people to think "That's an Asian language", though with enough exposure one is likely to say "Chinese doesn't sound at all like Japanese". Syllable onsets are at most consonant plus glide and coda consonants are minimal. Chinese and Japanese are tonal to varying degrees and Korean intonation is such that the non-tonal Seoul dialect still sounds tonal (even more so than Swedish). There are phonatory properties of other East Asian languages (breathiness, creakiness; implosive stops) which probably have been encountered in general exposure to Khmer, Thai, Vietnamese (as well as tone) which set those languages apart from European languages. One last factor that may bear on geographical guestimations of language origin is oral and pharyngeal tract volume, which is correlated with race

I expect that people without actual knowledge of the languages would not be able to accurately sort African versus Asian languages by continent, if one were to select random samples from a wide range of Asian and African language.

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  • Being Korean, I have no idea how it sounds to foreigners, but it's kinda funny that the Seoul dialect would be perceived as "tonal" - back when I was a school kid it was drilled down in English classes that English is a sing-songy language, with accents and intonation everywhere, and you had to get it right or your English will sound horribly monotonic, like Korean! – jick May 3 at 2:57
  • @jick I do wonder how much of that (American & European-based) perception of Seoul Korean is actually generated by South Korean mass media (Korean wave / Hallyu 한류). Maybe some age-segmented studies would be in order. – Michaelyus May 4 at 11:22
  • Korean doesn't sound the least bit tonal to me. It sounds less tonal than Japanese even, which also isn't tonal but the pitch accent can really stand out. The only non-tonal language that can sound tonal to me is Khmer. There are one or two common phrases in Korean that are accentuated by some speakers, like the long drawn-out "yes" that goes up and down, or the stereotypical way teenage girls can address their boyfriends, or in animated arguments. But other than that Korean sounds pretty flat and monotonic. – hippietrail May 5 at 3:43
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As already mentioned by others, there are many biases at play here.

  1. There is no such thing as "the sound of European languages", and most European languages sound nothing like English.

  2. Similarly, CJK languages sound very different from each other.

  3. The program that you wrote is not actually reading words aloud, it's just spelling.them. How they sound is a function of how the readers will map the sequence of characters onto phonemes. English pronunciation is by and large not deterministic given a sequence of characters in isolation, and pronunciation varies depending on a word's etymology, among other factors. İf you show English readers a sequence of characters that they cannot clearly map onto a similar word, İ would expect that their agreement concerning how it should be pronounced would be relatively low. Note that this wouldn't be the case for other languages, such as Turkish or Italian, in which the mapping from sequences.of characters to sequences of phonemes is pretty much deterministic.

  4. From the way that you describe the algorithm, it does not seem to be designed to produce English-like words. This will make the words appear exotic to the readers, and so they will be tempted to say that they sound (read) like some exotic language. Far eastern languages are probably considered more exotic, by virtue of the fact that western European and Anglo-Saxon cultures have been blending at many levels for many centuries.

  5. İf you want to generate words that sound like English, you should probably consider an algorithm that works (at the very least) at the syllable level, and that applies the appropriate morphological transformations at the boundaries between syllables.

  6. Have you tried generating, say, 1000 words, then analyzing the distribution of syllables (or character bigrams/trigrams, to keep things simpler) and comparing it with the distributions of the most frequent 1000 words of a bunch of languages?

  7. This is completely speculative. İ know a handful of Japanese words, and the sample is probably not very representative, but it seems to me that, when transliterated, it is common to see very regular words, with alternating vowels and consonants and frequent vowel endings. Also, İ don't think that Japanese has any strong vowel harmony, so randomish vowel patterns may fly. İt may be possible, then, that your algorithm is producing words that are somewhat more similar to transliterated Japanese than they are to English words.

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